Jan Van Bruaene of Real-Time Innovations (RTI): Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team
Hang out with your remote team. With weekly group meetings, regular 1-on-1 meetings, and almost daily conversations, I felt I was in tune with the team in Spain. I was wrong. I didn’t walk in their shoes or sit next to them. I didn’t realize how loud the office was without much sound absorption. I didn’t realize the stress they get at the end of their day when the California office comes online, or from the 5 p.m. meetings. You can only understand that when you hang out there for some time, with no specific agenda.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jan Van Bruaene, Real-Time Innovations (RTI).
Jan joined RTI in 2006 and has over 23 years of experience in technical and customer-facing leadership roles at companies such as Sun Microsystems and VLSI Technology. He has led professional services, support, and engineering organizations and has experience in middleware, grid application and infrastructure software, operating system design and device driver and network chip development. In his current role of vice president of Engineering, Jan is responsible for RTI’s Research and Development efforts and for software development processes and product quality.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
My Silicon Valley backstory has been always about networking: from networking chips, to Unix drivers, to integrating third party networking and peripheral products with Sun servers, and to a real-time connectivity platform. My story started as many immigrant stories to the Bay Area do.
A few days after graduating in 1995 with a degree in Electrical Engineering in Belgium, I was already on a plane to Silicon Valley. My plan was, after a 3-month culture/work immersion as part of an educational exchange program, to travel for a month throughout the Western United States. I was lucky enough to have found an interesting opportunity at VLSI Technology working on telecommunication and networking chips. That plan changed quickly when I was offered a permanent role on the team.
In 1999, I got the opportunity to expand beyond hardware and firmware, with Sun Microsystems. It was an exhilarating time to work for the company who put the dot in dot com. I worked again on I/O and networking technologies at Sun. As a software engineer, I was responsible for integrating third party networking and peripheral products (PCI, USB, 1394, Infiniband) with Sun thin client, workstations and large servers. We had one of each system in our lab. And when not being used for testing, we would compete with other companies to see who could complete the most SETI@Home workloads at night.
In 2006, I joined Real-Time Innovations. It was a big change from a huge systems company to a smaller software company.
I joined RTI as a senior applications engineer in the Services team. We helped customers succeed with our technology by training them and providing architecture guidance and on-site consulting. I spent the first summer at RTI, commuting weekly to one of our customers in San Diego. Although you spend the entire day until late in a cold lab, it was always great to conclude with a warm night in San Diego. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to be the group lead for a dedicated support team. It was a great place to learn customer skills and work under pressure. After managing the application services team, I moved over to the product development side and joined the R&D team in 2012 as RTI’s new VP of Engineering.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As I managed the RTI R&D and Support team, we got an interesting and special support case. Our software had been part of a NASA experiment where an astronaut controlled a K10 rover on the Roverscape at the NASA Ames Research Center. The experiment had been a smashing success, but, there had been a short snafu at the beginning, which was quickly resolved. We learned about this when we received a picture from the astronaut’s laptop screen with the “error” message. Who receives a support case from space? That was pretty cool.
Sometimes it is about the little things that may have a large impact. As Sun transitioned to USB for many of the peripherals, I was a part of the team working on the Solaris USB developer kit. As part of the project, I created example driver code. Little did I know that the small piece of code would end up in production, as part of a family of storage systems from Sun.
For most of my years at Sun, I had a remote manager in Boston. One time, he asked me to join a meeting for him and our group but didn’t tell me who else would be there. As I walked in, I was quickly starstruck as I joined the table with Sun luminaries Bill Joy, James Gosling and Whitfield Diffie. I wished I had a camera-phone at the time!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Be careful before you allow any application access to your contact list, even if they are reputable companies. During the early days of LinkedIn, the application was encouraging its users to reach out and grow your network. “Do you allow LinkedIn access to your Google contacts?” I expected it to show me a list of contacts which already were on LinkedIn and offer me the option to connect. I don’t know how it happened. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, or the questions were misleading. However, all my contacts received an email to connect with me on LinkedIn. That included the Sun Microsystems Alumni alias — a 60,000 people email list. That also included my non-work related contacts, such as my barber and gardener. Both of them recommended me for my Unix administration skills.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
First of all, it is important to encourage the team to take time off, for a week or two, to really disconnect from work. A long weekend is nice, but it is not the same to really be away from work. At RTI, as part of the rPTO time off policy, we pay employees a small bonus if they take at least a week off and are not checking email or thinking about work. Plus we changed the overall approach to time off so you can take time whenever you need it, rather than when you accrued sufficient time.
On a day-to day-level, I recommend people to actively manage their calendar so they have larger blocks to think and be creative. If your day is a constant stream of interruptions, email replies and Slack messages, it will quickly become very exhausting. Context switching is a real productivity killer.
Block two hours to work uninterruptedly. Dedicate a day for deep work. I reserve Tuesday. Agree as a team for a meeting-free day. Fridays in the R&D team at RTI are lighter in meetings, because the team in our Spain office ends their day earlier and because we encourage the managers to make it a limited-meeting-day.
However, I disconnect most when I am creating something else. One of my colleagues does woodworking and mentions his mind cannot think of work when his fingers are nearing the spinning saw blade. My creations are different. I enjoy cooking, I am a beginner banjo player, and I use my Saturday mornings to write.
Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?
RTI evolved from having the team primarily at our Sunnyvale headquarters, to one where more than 50% of our employees are elsewhere. We have a large group of employees in Granada, Spain, and a number across the US and Europe, working from their home offices.
I’ve managed remote employees, and teams for the past 10 years. The R&D team is about 70 people and is distributed around the world including Sunnyvale, CA, Granada, Spain, and with remote employees in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Colorado, Virginia and Minnesota. The team works in 5 different time zones.
Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team and what can one do to address these challenges? Can you give a story or example for each?
Top 5 challenges and advice when managing a remote team
1. Setting up the team as an extension of each other, rather than as a separate function, builds a cohesive team, and a team which can work more independently.
When we started the development team in Granada, we didn’t set up a specific function or product. We hired for almost every function there: core libraries development, tools development, customer support, etc.
This brought a few important benefits. Firstly, we could hire the best people, regardless of whether their product or team was local. Secondly, by having almost all teams and engineering functions in Granada, the group could work more independently. If the support team needed to talk to a core library engineer, they had a local person to work with. Local expertise was also beneficial when on-boarding new engineers. Lastly, everybody felt a part of the same larger R&D team, rather than being identified by location.
This setup does bring some logistical challenges, in that team meetings need to take into account both people in Silicon Valley and Spain. Furthermore, your manager may not be local, which can be a challenge for new graduates figuring out how to work in a corporate setting. We solved this by having local mentors.
2. Experiment and educate the team on how to best use the communication and productivity tools. This is harder than we think.
We all know the remote team tools to get: Zoom for video conferencing, Slack for group conversations, and Google Apps for collaboration. For each of them, there are a number of solid competitors as well. How you use these tools, however, is more important than the tool choice itself.
When we introduced IRC (the predecessor to Slack) to the team, we set up an IRC server and told the team: you are all engineers, you either know what this is or you can figure it out — good luck. We had a few enthusiastic early adopters, but the majority of the team wasn’t participating. They were trying to figure out how and when to leverage it. Our first foray into group communication soon fizzled out.
We tried again a short while later with HipChat. This time we made a plan and offered a more guided introduction to using the tool. First of all, we wanted maximum participation. We created the #GoodMorning channel. The price to be invited to HipChat was your commitment to start your day by posting a Good Morning message.
“Good Morning, today I have a customer meeting with GE, and a code review in the afternoon about the new content filtering feature. For lunch, a few of us are heading to Robee’s falafel”.
It was the equivalent of walking into the office and sharing with a colleague what you were up to for the day. The little message created more awareness of what people were up to, but also lowered the barrier of entry to using the tool.
We created a few more easy entry channels: #rvk was the RTI Virtual Kitchen for all kinds of non-work water cooler banter. #Arstechnica was for non-work related geek discussions.
We have since switched over to Slack. As folks had become very familiar using the tool, and as the rest of the company joined, we phased out the #GoodMorning channel as it became unwieldy.
It is important to experiment with how to use a tool and educate the team. The introduction of a new tool should always come with guidance, training and one or more shepherds of the tool.
Here are few small practices and lessons we learned:
- Have a remote first attitude — Arrange the conference room seats to face the camera and television screen rather than having remote participants to the side. It is all too easy to forget there are remote folks when you do not see them all the time or are not facing them.
- Invest in good audio, especially in larger conference rooms or when holding company presentations. It has taken us many tries to get this right. A great audio system is not cheap but pays for itself when you realize the costs of a poor meeting or briefing.
- Spend the time to write it out, be it the meeting agenda topics or the meeting conclusion. A lot can be lost over a video conference. A lot may be unclear when participants are at different levels of the English language. When you write out your ideas, they tend to improve in clarity. I also recommend this for 1-on-1 meetings: we have a shared document where we prepare the meeting topics and capture conclusions.
- Guide the team on what type of feedback you are seeking, and how you want to receive the feedback. The collaborative nature of Google Documents is very powerful, but also can slow us down a lot. Google Docs’ commenting feature makes us lazy. It invites us to make drive-by comments and creates more work for the original author of the document. We love to add our two cents or wordsmith. In many cases, these comments are rarely improving the original idea substantially. The commenting feature doesn’t really lend itself to elaborate, as comments are squished into the margin. Resolving the many little comments becomes a job in itself. All this creates Execution Drag. Instead, ask the reviewer what you want specific feedback on, and encourage them to write it inline with the document for easy contrasting with the original idea.
- Considering the purpose and desired action will help you determine the optimal communication method. In my blog, “A framework to work more efficiently and effectively as a distributed team,” I discuss how depending on whether you are sharing information, creating something or deciding, you should adjust your approach. A simple example of that is separating high-signal (must-read) from low-signal (fyi) Slack channels. For example, I created the #team-eng-mgrs and #team-eng-mgrs-fyi channels.
- Frequent mini-updates keep a remote team informed. We hold internal tech briefings to share technical updates. These presentations don’t have to be polished, and demos don’t have to fully work. Early information sharing is what we’re after. There are other ways we share updates continuously, from internal quarterly product updates, to mini “What’s cooking” in each sub team bi-weekly updates.
3. Hang out with your remote team
With weekly group meetings, regular 1-on-1 meetings, and almost daily conversations, I felt I was in tune with the team in Spain. I was wrong. I didn’t walk in their shoes or sit next to them. I didn’t realize how loud the office was without much sound absorption. I didn’t realize the stress they get at the end of their day when the California office comes online, or from the 5 p.m. meetings. You can only understand that when you hang out there for some time, with no specific agenda.
I made it a point to travel there every quarter, even if there was no big decision to be made, or a planning meeting to be organized. When I go to Granada, I also meet with all the new hires, and go for walks through the town while talking about their work, and their life. Walking together is a non-confrontational way to meet, rather than on opposite sides of a conference room table.
In those conversations, you also realize important culture differences. For example, when hiring in Spain, candidates will only apply when they meet all requirements in the job description. In the US, that is different. I see many people applying when they’ve barely met 25% of the job requirements. When hiring for Spain, we are very careful in what and how we phrase the job requirements.
Every year, we also bring the entire team together in California. We have presentations about the plans for the year and/or about new product features. However, the real value from the company kick-off (CKO) week are not those presentations. The real benefit from the CKO event is what happens in the kitchen, at the bar in the evening, or while playing a game during the team building events. That’s where you build trust as a team and accrue goodwill.
A company kick-off event is a large planning endeavor. It may be hard to do those multiple times a year. Do plan smaller team get-togethers. The immediate cost will be dwarfed by the return you get from better teamwork and lower attrition.
4. Language skills matter
During the hiring process, we also assess the candidates’ English skills. They are infrequently a disqualifying factor, though they give us an idea about the ramp up time. English is the primary language in the company, and we want to make sure all people can defend their ideas adequately.
We host language classes, provide opportunities to practice presentation skills in a friendly environment, and have tried a few other things to improve the English proficiency of the remote team, such as English-only-Mondays.
The latter is hard when the team is almost 95% Spanish speaking. It is a bit unnatural to talk to your colleague in a foreign language when you could be much faster in Spanish. If you have different nationalities with different mother tongues, the language barrier will be much smaller as teams will default faster to English.
5. Ooch into bringing the time zones closer together.
Eight years ago, many engineers in Silicon Valley would start their day around 10 a.m. and work until late. The RTI engineering team meeting would be around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. PST. Even though for Europe, Spain’s working hours are shifted, that didn’t work. Slowly we moved the time zones closer to each other. Nowadays, many team meetings start at 8 a.m. PST / 5 p.m. CEST. Many start their day before 8 a.m. PST, or end their day in Spain closer to 7 p.m. We are definitely atypical for Spain in that regard.
A few years ago, we made the change that Friday 7 p.m. meetings are off limits for Spain. As a matter of fact, people can arrange their day to leave around 3 p.m. on Friday, as many Spanish companies in the South of Spain allow.
This was not something we changed overnight. We slowly “ooched” into a better overlapping schedule. A willingness to stay late or wake up early for your team, combined with a meet-only-when-necessary approach are key to making sure distributed teams feel appreciated. I start my day before 7 a.m. I am available for my team early in the morning and that creates a lot of goodwill and trust.
I am also cognizant of energy levels across the group. If you launch into a heavy topic at 6:30 p.m. local time, you can expect people to be drained. In this case, publish the agenda well in advance and allow for plenty of prep time. This way, you can still get the input when faced with the time zone differences.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language, but not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?
Indeed, facial expressions and body language are very important. We encourage verbal and video conversations, over email feedback, even for positive feedback. If you have to have a tough conversation, I always like to make sure it is a video conversation. I do want to cue on the visual feedback.
Even though my 1-on-1 template includes a feedback topic, I always make sure I discuss it during the 1-on-1.
Your topics (No need to complete all the fields here. This is a template to remind ourselves if something fits into these categories.)
- Highlights — items you are especially proud of
- Lowlights — items you wished had gone differently
- Challenges — even if you are handling it, and don’t need help
- Needs — how can I or others help you?
- Other topics:
- Feedback — let’s go over this in the meeting
- Review/Follow up — not all the time
- Career Development Plan items
- Your milestones
- Your OKRs
- Action Items
- Other topics:
Secondly, I ask more explicitly for confirmation. “Do you agree with the feedback? Is it fair?” or “What do you think about my comments?” I want to externalize what you normally can figure out from body language or facial expressions.
Thirdly, one of my reports provided me with feedback that I could be quite persuasive in these meetings and that he needed time to think it through. Since then we made it a standing 1-on-1 topic, as a follow up from the previous meeting: “Is there anything for our last discussion that we need to revisit or discuss?”
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Ninety percent of the work here is unrelated to the email. You need to build trust and goodwill every day through 1-on-1s. How you interact every day will dictate how your email will be interpreted.
In the Radical Candor book, Kim Scott points out that providing feedback is key: criticize in private, praise in public. If you mess this up, you lose goodwill. And as a result, the email may be misread. Another tip is to think very hard when reviewing who is on your cc list. I’ve seen multiple times where people weren’t necessarily upset about the content of the email, but more so who the email was shared with.
In my experience, you may start with sharing constructive feedback via email, though it best to be followed up in your weekly 1-on-1.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
People just miss the camaraderie of hanging out together at work or having lunch together. Even though we try informal coffee chats or a virtual happy hour, no Zoom session can replace that. There is definitely a transition period and people need time to adjust.
When you are in the office together, it is easier to know how the group is doing. Perhaps Ross is frustrated about the code check-in, while Rachel is pumped that she finally figured out the hard software bug. We have been trying a few things to get a better read on the team working remotely. The HR team has done pulse surveys to figure out how people are doing working remotely, and what type of support they need. We also started the engineering manager meeting by taking the stress temperature: red/yellow/green with a sentence or two about your state of mind, both professionally and personally. E.g., it may not be obvious that Joey and his wife are struggling to balance work and two toddlers at home.
To combat Zoom fatigue, and a bit contrary to some of the advice to turn on video all the time, I recommend folks to go for a walk while joining a call. Get up and move around.
One tip I found useful for people who didn’t normally work remotely was to create an end of day ritual: pack up your bag, walk outside around the car, and approach your house like you’re coming from a long day’s work.
There are a few things I haven’t figured out yet as I transitioned to a home office, like having an effective virtual whiteboard. I am a visual person and am known to quickly grab a pen and jot things down on a whiteboard. Also, I’m still trying to figure out how to manage a planning meeting with multiple remote people. Typically we get together in person to hold planning meetings. Perhaps Zoom breakout rooms can aid, though I haven’t gone through the experience of organizing a virtual off-site.
What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
My three essential tips for creating a healthy and empowering work culture with a remote team would be:
- Clear responsibility maps are even more important when the team is remote.
- Promoting life balance. We do virtual classes or games to encourage healthy habits. Employees at RTI love sharing healthy recipes. #ChefsOfRTI
- Out of sight does not mean out of mind. Do an impromptu call or set up a 15 minute check-in
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I am more of a pragmatic person of incremental and continuous changes than of big visionary ideas. To effect change you need both the dreamers and those who make dreams come to life. I see myself more in the second group.
Global warming and affordable healthcare are top priorities to solve. They affect us all, regardless of our background, nationality, ethnicity, or political affiliation. However, if I had my TED wish, it would be about education. The development of a curious and creative mind will lead to solutions for whatever problems we are facing or going to be facing in the future. It will also bring us back to a time where decisions and opinions are rooted in science. Or at least we will be talking about the merits of a scientific study, rather than discussing opinions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Growing up in the Flanders region of Belgium, you tend to be down-to-earth and humble. I grew up to work hard and with the mantra that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
I do believe that “nothing worth having comes easy.” That surely is true for big causes.
That’s also true in everyday life. A great Thanksgiving dinner takes time in the kitchen. You have to hike up that mountain to get the beautiful view. Growing great-tasting tomatoes in your vegetable garden takes constant care… so, as you work on your dream or a tomato garden, enjoy the struggles and hard work.
Jan Van Bruaene of Real-Time Innovations (RTI): Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.